The HIStory booklet remains the one that required the most work on my part to analyze the album credits. In this thirst for knowledge, Jen Leigh’s name caught my attention in the list of musicians. I discovered that she was the only female guitarist in Michael Jackson’s discography. I had been wishing to interview her on this subject for quite some time, and when Jen joined the band on the US tour of MJ The Musical, I realized it was high time I did.
How did you grow a passion for music and eventually make a career out of it?
I always loved music as a kid. I had a lot of records and toy instruments (plastic guitars, a Muppet drum set, horns, a real organ, xylophone etc). I rocked out in front of my parents’ bedroom mirror too many times to count. I dreamed of being on stage. I used to put on pretend performances with my friend in the living room – our faves were Jackson 5 and Abba records! I’m not joking!
One day out of nowhere I asked my parents if I could take guitar lessons. At least that’s what they remember! (laughs) So they found a great teacher who came to the house. I was immediately obsessed. My mom vividly remembers that I went and locked myself in my bedroom right after that first lesson to practice. I never stopped from that point on. Guitar and all things music became my life. I was 12 or 13 at this time. I went to a performing arts high school to study jazz, and then Berklee College for 1 year. I also studied privately and at guitar camps non-stop throughout my teens. So I knew that I wanted to somehow play music as a career at a young age.
I didn’t start working professionally until my 20s when opportunities started happening on a pro level.
Can you tell us about your first professional experiences on stage and in the studio?
My first time on stage was at guitar camp when I was 13/14…but on a pro level the first tour I did was playing for the late Merl Saunders. He was a wicked Hammond B3 player known for his work with Jerry Garcia. It was very much a jam band/Dead Head scene, which really set the tone for me to develop as a musician in that style/genre. I consider myself a jam band/improv type of player mostly.
Believe it or not, my first professional studio job was playing on MJ’s album. I was very young.
How did you feel about MJ and his music prior to playing on one of his albums?
OMG, I LOVED his music! I used to jam out to ‘Rockin’ Robin’ and Jackson 5 records all the time. And of course when Off The Wall and Thriller came out, they were all the rage. Those songs are so forever embedded in my soul, it’s crazy. I became obsessed with funk music in my teens, so his music showed me how that style could be blended with ALL musical styles successfully and tastefully.
How were you contacted to play on the HIStory album?
I had auditioned for the 1993/2nd leg of the Dangerous Tour in L.A. After jamming out with the band I was excitedly told that I had the gig on the spot. They sent me back to my hotel to make arrangements to have the rest of my equipment and clothes shipped to me, as rehearsals were slated to begin immediately. You can imagine my shock AND elation as I was only 20 years old. The next morning someone called me to say that they decided to go with a different player, which was Becky Barksdale. No one would give me a reason why – they just left my manager and I hanging. To say this was devastating would be an understatement. Welcome to the ugly side of the music industry. Michael was not present at my audition, so I can’t really give you any more info other than my perspective. As we all know now, that leg of the tour had many cancellations and issues. Regardless of this awful experience, I clearly made an impression on Brad (Buxer).
The following year (1994), he called me out of the blue and left a message on my machine: “Come to SONY studios tomorrow in NYC. I want you to do a session for this album we’re working on.” I still lived in Connecticut at the time so I drove to NY the next day and that was the session for ‘Stranger In Moscow’. Crazy story, but it’s the truth.
Can you share your experience of the ‘Stranger In Moscow’ recording session? Who did you interact with?
I remember interacting with Brad, Doug Grigsby (on bass), and Jeff Mironov mostly, who was another guitarist on the track. I can’t remember if Bruce was in the control room or someone else. I’m sure Brad could tell you everybody that was there though. It was a very small room and studio we were in. What I do remember is working through the fingerpicked guitar riff intro til I got it right. I also remember thinking to myself “Wow, this is a really cool, unique and beautiful chord progression.” His beat box voice samples were also incredibly cool to me. No one was doing that back then. At some point Michael called from a helicopter during the session. (laughs) I don’t know where he was in the world, but he asked that they hold the phone up to the speakers so he could hear our progress. And he said that he was happy with what he heard.
Do you still own the HIStory plaque that was given to everyone who worked on the album? How did you feel when it was given to you?
Of course! It is in safe storage at a friend’s house now while I’m on tour. I had no idea I would be receiving it honestly, so when it arrived at my house out of nowhere one day I almost fainted. (laughs) It was quite an honor for me – and again I was very young so to have that accomplishment meant a lot to me. It still does.
Are you aware that you remain the only female guitar player in MJ’s whole discography?
Yes, I am aware of that. It’s a bit surreal.
Now, you are part of the group of MJ The Musical tour: how did this happen?
I was referred for the tour by a musician I had done a huge recording session with in LA. She is heavily involved in Broadway work as an music director and conductor. I got a call a few days later, went through a series of audition videos and phone interviews and three weeks later they offered me the job. It all happened rather quickly.
‘Stranger In Moscow’, of course. The composers added a big rock guitar solo at the end during the show which as you know is not on the record. So that makes it even more special and fun for me. It’s the one moment I get to improvise and just go for it and feel it. I play from the heart and keep it tasty to fit the emotions of the scene. After that without a doubt it’s the Jackson 5 medley section that I love most! It is soooo much fun. The arrangement is perfection and I feel like a kid again every time we play it! The grooves are so infectious in that music that I can’t sit still most shows. Also, hearing the live horn section in the pit as I’m playing is pure magic!!! I love horns. Our sound team here is incredible and the band just sounds huge out in the audience. This music is so awesome.
Does MJ music match your own musical style?
Absolutely! As I developed as a player/musician/songwriter/session player, funk and soul music really took over my life. My original music is a full on blend of funk and rock. Michael’s music showed the world how all styles can be blended together to create magic – pop, gospel, soul, blues, rock, reggae, metal, funk…it’s all in there. Great music is great music regardless of genre.
Would you like to say a few words to the fans who would be interested in attending the tour?
I encourage all MJ fans to see this show. I don’t just say this because I’m involved. It is truly a wonderful and joyful experience. The production is so well done from all aspects of theater, sets, lighting, sound design, costumes, dance, singing, the music, etc. and the cast is so insanely talented that it’s impossible to describe in words. You really just have to see the show. It is part Broadway/musical theater, and part rock concert. I get to climb up on road cases to play the ‘Beat It’ solo every night and it is a full on rock ‘n’ roll vibe during that moment! I am so in my element and love the energy it creates. There aren’t any other musicals out there quite like it. Even if you’ve never been a theater fan, trust me you will be after experiencing MJ!
The roar of the crowds at the end of every show still blows my mind! EVERYONE is on their feet fist bumping, clapping, singing… To see the power of MJ’s music carry on like this and bring so many people joy is what it’s all about. The show celebrates his legacy in a beautiful way. His music is timeless.
And on another note, for me this is also about paying homage to David Williams brilliant guitar work. He never got his just due as a player in my opinion. I had to mention that as it means a lot to me. David was one of a kind and he deserves accolades for the iconic riffs he contributed to Michael’s music.
Finally, where does this participation in the HIStory album stand in your career?
Well, again it was my first true “professional” credit and experience at a very young age. In many ways I started at the top and then had to claw my way back up over decades of hard work. This industry is very tough,
So it’s a reminder for me to never give up, continue to persevere no matter what gets thrown your way. If you really want to be in this business, you have to learn young and fast to roll with the ups and downs.
Unfortunately the downs often outweigh the ups. It’s the nature of the entertainment industry. But you must keep going and believe in yourself and your talents. If it’s your passion no one and nothing can stop you. I’m living proof of that.
Thanks so much for this opportunity, Brice. We’ve been in touch for years and I appreciate the support. I hope your community of MJ fans enjoys it.
Thank you Jen!